Summertime, Shad and Square Bills

By Steve Bellrichard

I decided to fish my way through 2020, the year of social isolation, and experienced the most epic day of largemouth bass fishing of my life. I have no idea how many bass I caught the morning of August 7th, but I fished one spot for an hour and a half, catching fish after fish, and leaving because I felt guilty, not because they stopped biting.

Following is the story of how I figured out how to catch bass during the dog days of summer on a small shad filled reservoir in south eastern Iowa. If you fish similar waters, you will want to give some of what I learned a try.

This story starts with a gift from my fishing buddy Ed. Ed, to put it mildly, is a neat freak. One late night after catching, cleaning and then packaging walleye, he looked at his son’s pile of mystery fishing boxes- you know, the ones where you receive a monthly box of various fishing lures and accessories, and said “We need to thin this herd”.

Ed started digging through the boxes and ran across a chartreuse Bagley square bill crankbait and said, “We’ll never use that”. I had been watching the TV show “Major League Fishing” and recognized the bait as one used by a professional to catch springtime bass. Being the good friend that I am, I kindly offered to take it off his hands.

Fast forward to spring 2020. I was bass fishing out of my kayak on a small reservoir in South East Iowa, catching one here and one there but was struggling to put any sort of pattern together. I was throwing everything I had and caught five bass on five different lures. The pros call this junk fishing. I continued searching the limited tackle I was carrying and ran across that Bagley square bill Ed had given me. I tried it on and took a cast and before I could turn the handle three times, I had a bass. This went on for almost an hour as I worked the shoreline of the dam. The fish were shallow, in less than three feet of water, and the crankbait didn’t even reach the bottom before the fish were on it. I soon understood why when I snagged a four-inch-long gizzard shad, which resembled my crank bait’s profile. It was time to quit, but I decided to return the next day and work other areas of the lake.

The square bill worked the next day and the next day after that and continued to work until about late June or early July. So, I put the square bill away and went back to my normal tactic of dragging jigs and soft plastics around shoreline cover. This resulted in good fishing, but nothing to write The Iowa Sportsman about.

Fast forward to late July, the dog days of summer. I was working my way down a shoreline when I decided to give a different square bill crank bait a try, a rattling Arashi Square 5. I caught a couple casting to shoreline cover, but nothing great until I reached a point. There I fired a cast toward a downed tree and my lure hit a limb causing my bait caster to backlash. As I worked out the backlash, my kayak drifted slightly offshore. To assure the backlash was cleared, I fired a long cast down wind out into open water. About halfway back, I was hooked up. It felt like a good fish, but soon my rod doubled, and it went from feeling good to feeling great. As the fish got closer, I could see it was not a good fish, it was two.

One bass, thankfully, got off before I had to attempt the landing, and as soon as I released the plump two pounder I fired another cast in the same direction, and for the next half hour I caught fish after fish. These fish were the one to two pound variety, which the fishing shows refer to as “schoolers”. I had found a school and had a blast.

On the rare occasion when I did not get a bite, my crankbait dove deep enough to bump the bottom slightly. Knowing the depth this crankbait dives to, in this case five feet, I knew the depth these bass were holding. I then noted the location. They were located where my kayak would normally be siting if I were working the shoreline, about a cast’s length or 50-75 feet from shore.

I also experimented with different lures types, but the square bills where hands down the best. I then experimented with different colors of square bills, natural shad, red and black, chart and blue and they all worked but the bass choked the natural shad color. By choked I mean that the lure was way down the bass’s mouth, not just hooked in the lip. When this happens, you know your lure type and color is what they want.

Now that I knew what type and color of lure they wanted and the depth they were holding, I began trolling in hopes of finding another school. While trolling I watched my rod tips to see if I was bumping bottom and as I approached the next point, I saw a bump and was hooked up. On this point, five foot depth was almost 100-ft from shore. The pattern was established. I had to leave but was excited to return to see if this pattern would hold up and I could locate other schools of bass.

Fast forward to August 7th. I arrived early and was the first one on the water. I started probing the offshore area around the boat landing, but only managed one fish. Another boat arrived and quickly jumped ahead of me. I thought, how rude, but as I watched these anglers fishing the shoreline and only catching the occasional fish, I realized they did not know where the majority of the fish were located.

I let them get a good distance ahead of me and then started trolling. I was soon hooked up with a double indicating I had found another school. After releasing the fish, I confirmed it was a school as I caught another fish on the next cast. I did not want my competitors to see where I was fishing so I moved on.

I watched the boat fish past the point where I had found that first school in late July. They did not catch a fish and continued down the shoreline. I let them get a good distance away before I made my way to the point and fired a cast offshore. The school was still there, and I caught fish after fish including two doubles. These fish were on fire.

Satisfied the pattern was still working I went in search of another school. I continued to watch the other boat from a distance, and they were still working the shoreline, catching fish but only one here and there and never catching more than one in a given spot.

I let them round the corner before I probed the next point. I made several casts across the point finding where the five foot depth was but had no takers. As I passed the point I turned and fired a cast in the opposite direction and was bit before the crankbait reached the bottom. I could tell immediately that this fish was bigger than the schoolers I had been catching. It jumped and threw the square bill, but this fish was pushing the five pound mark. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to run into a school of big ones?” I had, and for the next hour and a half caught fish after fish ranging in size from two to five pounds. I don’t know how many fish you can catch in that time but I caught so many I started feeling guilty.

So, what had I learned and how can this help you catch more bass during the dog days of summer?

First off, my previous experience fishing the dog days of summer led me to believe bass fed primarily early and late in the day. This was not the case as I caught fish from the school of big ones from 10:30 AM to noon.

Next, the majority of fish were offshore, typically a cast length from shore holding in five foot of water. On this lake’s points the five feet depth was about where my kayak would have been if I were working the shoreline. If you watch Bill Dance regularly, he always says that he knows a good fisherman when their first question is “What depth were they in?” In other words, knowing the depth of the fish is the most important piece of the fishing puzzle you have to figure out.

Square bills rule. If you don’t have some, get some and in a variety of colors and depth diving ranges. I have subsequently found schools of offshore bass in the eight to twelve foot range. When they are in an aggressive state, they will hit a crankbait before it reaches bottom, but when they are in a neutral or negative state you want your bait to be bumping the bottom to trigger a strike.

Casting angle is sometimes critical. When you find a likely spot and are not getting bites, try repositioning the boat and working the spot from a different angle. Sometimes this makes all the difference.

When you do make contact, note how the fish are hooked. If the bass is lip hooked by the lure’s back hook, this indicates a tentative bite. When this happens, try experimenting with different colors or lure types until they start choking it, or in the case of a crankbait, are hooked by the front treble.

Lastly, if you don’t have a map of the lake’s topography or depth finder with a lake map built in, trolling crankbaits is an effective way to eliminate water and find the schools. I typically will run two crankbaits when exploring, one that dives five to six feet and another eight to 10 feet.

I hope what this old dog learned during the summer of social isolation helps you catch more bass during your next dog days of summer outing. This lesson reminds me of a favorite quote, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got”. In other words, keep fishing the shoreline, there will be more bass for me.